Against A Tyrannical Gospel

All concepts of utopia are ultimately forms of tyranny. Whether those utopias are religious and promise some sort of Paradise; whether they strive for liberty through ideological frameworks like socialism, capitalism, or democracy; or whether they are socio-cultural and attempt to achieve harmony through celebrating a common cultural or linguistic identity, they all ultimately suffer from the same flaw: they are all oppressive.

Most of the time they do not intend to be so, that is true. Still, the inevitable by-product of constructing a concept of an ideal citizen is the development of an Other. The degree to which members of the group conform to the idealised subject becomes the measure of their value to the group. The minute we construct an image of an idealised community towards which we strive, we place value on a fictional future “community” rather than on the people who make up the real, current one. And we begin to judge people – and legitimise discriminating against them – based on the ways in which they fail to resemble the ideal community member. We no longer value who people are, but who we think they ought to be.

That is why young people in a globally connected world, who regard many of their traditional cultural practices as obsolete, or who do not speak “pure” versions of their community’s language, might come to be ostracised by the community and accused of losing touch with their roots. Language and culture become tools through which those in power within linguistic and cultural communities (all too often men) maintain their power and quell any challenges to that power.

That is why Christians – like me – who believe in neither the inerrancy of the Bible nor in a Penal Substitution model of atonement, are often branded as heretical by other Christians. I am sure it happens to members of other religious communities too, when they question the status quo: they risk being shunned, exiled, excommunicated or even killed.

It is how all human social interaction is organised – from political parties to sports fans. Membership of an exclusive group compels us to shape our identities in conformity to the hypothetical ideal member of that group, or to risk alienation (which would further identify us as potential scapegoats in times of social distress).

But the truth of the matter is that what distinguishes one individual from another, what makes us unique, is often the variety of ways in which we deviate from the social template, not the degree to which we conform. Culture and language and spirituality are not static, monolithic identities that are imposed on people by accident of birth. They are fluid being-with experiences, shaped by our unique relationships with others in our worlds, and the unique set of circumstances and events each one of us is subjected to. The intersections of those unique individual experiences become the foundation of the communal experience of each other, of culture. We construct culture and language and spirituality even as they construct us.

So the minute we try to pressure individuals towards assimilation into some imagined ideal, we delegitimize the very thing that makes them individual: the ways in which they do not conform to the hypothetical ideal citizen. And that is tyranny.

Here is where – theologically, anyway – things get complicated.  If I accept that God is love (which is the claim of Christianity), then there is no room for God to be a tyrant. Love and tyranny are mutually exclusive, or “perfect love drives out fear”, to quote the writer of 1 John.  What must follow, then, is that God has no intention of imposing on humanity any form of idealised community.  If God is not a tyrant, then it must follow that God accepts people not as they could or should be, but as they are.

Traditional religious distinctions like “righteousness” and “unrighteousness” go out the window. Eden is forgotten. Paradise becomes Hell. And we see all the things that we thought would win us favour with God – sacrifice and piety and holiness codes – for what they are: chains. And truthfully, a close reading of the teachings of both Jesus and Paul will reveal exactly this. Part of the gospel revelation is that we are not who we thought we were. And Others are not who we thought they were either. We find a common identity (whether “saved” or “unsaved”) in Christ. That is not to say that cultural and linguistic and religious differences must fall away. Not at all. Those are what give us unique insights into the world, and give richness to our existences. Rather, it is to say that we can no longer use these differences to lend legitimacy to our scapegoating of others. These things do not make anybody “righteous” or “unrighteous”; they are merely differences. But whether we like it or not (usually not), we are all connected, children of a cosmos spoken into being by a Being who is Love.

The richest expression of our being, therefore, will come when we live in accordance with the reality that we are all inescapably connected. When we honour that connectivity – do to others as we would have them do to us – we experience our relationships in their most beautiful forms. There is no doubt that a human social landscape governed by loving relatedness would be the most desirable way of being-with.

The complication is that this can too easily become another ideal vision of community. Christianity – even the non-violent kind – can easily become well-intentioned tyranny. You simply cannot legislate inclusivity. Anti-racist laws will never be enough eradicate racism; gender-empowerment programmes will never be enough to redress gender discrimination in the workplace. Commandments to love cannot make people value loving relatedness. Laws do not change hearts. And only changed hearts change relationships, which in turn transform culture.

So how do we effect a move towards a community of loving relatedness without reducing it to an oppressive dystopia? I think we do it not by revealing God to people, but by recognising God in them. It is only ever achievable when we accept people as they are. Yes, perhaps they are broken mirrors who reflect the image of the Creator only imperfectly. But then is that not true also of us? We are all mirrors. We are all broken mirrors. And we were all made by the same God. We cannot treat others as though their differences disqualify them from access to God’s Servantdom, any more than we can assume that our own worthiness qualifies us.  Being part of the Servantdom was never something we needed to achieve: we are in relationship with God by virtue of the fact that we were all created through the Logos that is Jesus: qualification is a non-issue. It is not our job to bring people into the Servantdom. They are already there. It is our job, as followers of Jesus, to awaken them to that liberating reality. And so, like Jesus but unlike Adam, we can reject the (symbolic) fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, which lets us divide people into the righteous and unrighteous, we can stop blaming others for the brokenness in the world, and we can trust that God, as the Creator of all things, will only stop the work of restoring creation – just as in the Genesis stories – when it can finally be declared that all is good.

I concur wholeheartedly with Jacob Wright, who takes this stand: “I reject a gospel that makes the world worse than it already is, that adds loads of spiritual heaviness to the weight of sadness and darkness that we already must deal with as humans. While the gospel does call us out of the sin and the systems that dehumanize us and victimize each other, the gospel is light and hope and peace and joy for all! It is good news in this dark world or it is nothing at all.”

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